A few years ago, my parents began the process of “downsizing”. They went through boxes of possessions accumulated over the years, giving away some things, tossing out others. Textbooks from their college days and business books, long outdated, were some of the first to go from a library of several hundred volumes. Still the books piled up as they bought new releases and the other members of the family and I gave each of them some new volumes we had found or, perhaps even better, some old treasure we had unearthed at a used book store that we knew would be of interest to them. Then there were the DVDs and the CDs that began to accumulate after they had given their old turntable and tape player away but still enjoyed music and watching films or listening to audiobooks. For all they gave away, the balance was still tilted heavily on the side of “have”.
My father passed away in the summer of this year. About six weeks ago, my mother began the old downsizing routine a bit more earnestly one weekend when I was visiting her. She decided to tackle the books and records department as part of an emotionally difficult project of converting the room that had been my father’s study to a guest room. Down came the bookshelves. “Take what you’d like,” she told me and my brother. We moved stacks of others to a different location in the house. She opened a closet with record albums loaded high on shelves. “Please take them. I’ll never play them,” she said.
What a treasure trove! I went through title after title of books and records. It seemed there was some of everything: Literature – classic and modern; popular fiction from crime novels to humorous romps; philosophy; history – of civilization in general, of Europe, of the United States, of special topics or eras; military history – wars from the Peloponnesian to the Gallic, from the Saxon to the War of the Roses, from the American Revolution to the Civil War to both World Wars and beyond, strategies and campaigns throughout time; politics and political commentary – of both American parties, of Russia, of Germany, of the U.K., of senators, presidents, wannabes and dreamers; current affairs; biographies of every different kind of person – from Gandhi, to Truman, to Reagan, to Obama, from millworkers to entertainers; and religion – not just every angle of Christianity and its practices but Judaism and Hinduism and beyond.
And the records! Beautiful multi-disc recordings of operas, of symphonies, of composers as varied as Brahms and Beethoven, Bernstein and Mahler. I had long since raided my parents’ collection of original Broadway cast recordings and films. My father’s Janis Joplin collection made it to mine years ago.
It really hit me — I don’t think I had ever quite realized it in this way — what an incredibly well-read person my father was, what a brilliant man he was, a man of tremendous interests and tastes. These books weren’t just on the shelves for décor; each and every one had been read. I certainly didn’t always agree with him, nor he with me, particularly in matters political. But hands down, as I look at the evidence, I think his opinions certainly had more research backing them than most of mine.
And, by the way, except for the phonograph records, these were just my father’s books. We haven’t even talked about my mother’s.
He was — and she is — highly-intelligent. Both were well-educated. And continued their educations far beyond formal schooling. I feel quite the slacker in comparison.
Besides being overwhelmed at confronting in such a tangible way the depth and breadth of my father’s interests and knowledge, I have been reminded yet again (and I have realized this part to some extent before now) exactly how lucky I am — what a gift it has been — that I grew up in a house where music and reading of all sorts and knowledge of many different things was so highly valued.
Both my parents read to my siblings and me from the time I can remember, giving us a jump start before we ever went to primary school. They attended movies and the theatre long before I ever considered those fields as a vocation, and brought home playbills and cast albums whose liner notes I devoured and whose cast lists I memorized (often reveling when I would recognize names of supporting players from one show to another). Music was always on in the house, whether that was on television or from them playing the piano, or the Texaco radio broadcasts of the opera on Saturdays, or the stereo. Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings before church, there was always something playing on the Telefunken stereo in the living room: Herb Albert, the Dukes of Dixieland, Dave Brubeck, “The 1812 Overture” (which I loved to “conduct”), folk music, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Barbra Streisand, Nat King Cole, the Ink Spots, “The Grand Canyon Suite”, Dad’s beloved Mahler, etc, etc, etc.
The funny thing is, there was never a fuss made over all this richness of culture. It was just the atmosphere of the household. I always thought it was normal — that everyone else did the same thing.
Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. Thank you for the incredible gift.